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‘Dead men tell no tales?’ Don’t be so sure

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Some people have a preoccupation with death and the dead. Many jokes, with intended humor and/or fondness, are told about dying and death, and how heaven’s door is guarded by St. Peter. Thoughts of death are reflected in statements people make, such as, “I’m dead tired,” “He was dead weight,” or something is “dead as a doornail.”

Because of their knowledge of some crime or scandal, some people may find themselves in a hazardous situation. It is a chilling reality that many people have been brutalized or killed because they knew too much about someone or something. The possibility that they might tell can jeopardize their lives and the lives of others. Some guilty person may realize that the only way to make sure another person does not tell about some criminal fault or reveal some shaming secret would be to kill that person. Perhaps it was this kind of reasoning that prompted the English proverb, “Dead men tell no tales.”

Well, do dead men tell tales? Have you ever heard a dead person talk? I imagine a room filled with people would be emptied quickly if a casket-housed corpse was heard to speak..

There are some people who want to communicate with the dead. There have been people, sane or otherwise, who claim they talked with the dead or the dead spoke to them They attempt it through some kind of psychic experience, as when so-called clairvoyants exploit people’s longings and defraud people by holding seances.

A notable example of this is the attempt over decades by family members of the celebrated escape artist, Harry Houdini, to communicate with him. His widow, after many years, publicly declared the attempts were a failure.

It is a certainty, I believe, that dead people can no longer utter words and write messages, any more than a dead battery can start an automobile or power a flashlight. There is a clear message here, it seems to me, which says that whatever needs to be said or done should and must be done before life’s last breath is drawn, because all of our human activities and accomplishments on this earth will cease at death.

Nevertheless, the dead can speak to us in many ways. They can speak to succeeding generations through memories of their lifestyles, actions and words. We all say things like, “I can just hear now what my mother told me when I got married,” “I can still hear my old boss saying to me...,” or “My grandfather always said ....”

The dead can speak a good message to later generations, in the sense of Abel, who was slain by his brother Cain, “...who through faith...continued to speak after his death.”

Thomas Eliot conveyed the same idea in the words: “What the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell, being dead.” They can do it through institutions they envisioned and began, such as a college, a hospital or some kind of home to meet people’s needs. It is often true that “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one person.”

A classic example of this is Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the second-largest domed structure in the world, which contains a plaque stating, “If you would see his monument, look around you.”

The dead can also speak messages of evil to us, about the wicked kind of life they lived and the destructive legacy they left, like a Hitler, or some of the high-profile music, movie, and sports figures who lived immorally and died of drug overdoses or some other kind of suicide.

Even dead victims of crime, through discovered evidence, have brought guilty people to trial and conviction when the victim was considered unable to speak for himself.

In one sense, dead men and women do not speak for others to hear. In another way of looking at it, dead men and women do speak for others to hear. The concern people should have is to speak carefully in deed and word while we live, and in such a way that after death others will be able to benefit from what the message of our lives continues to say.

Some oft-quoted lines from Longfellow speak of the influence which is felt after one’s death, “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.”

Ray Hodge, a retired Baptist pastor, lives in Smithfield, and can be reached at